The Celtic Mind: How Adam Smith and Edmund Burke Saved Civilization

By Birzer, Bradley J. | The American Conservative, April 2012 | Go to article overview

The Celtic Mind: How Adam Smith and Edmund Burke Saved Civilization


Birzer, Bradley J., The American Conservative


One contemplates the power, depth, and breadth of the finest 18th-century minds only with some trepidation and humility. Or at least, one should.

The favorite study of the great men of that day, famed editor of The Nation E.L. Godkin explained in 1900, was the glorification of the person against political power. In "opposition to the theory of divine right, by kings or demagogues, the doctrine of natural rights was set up. Humanity was exalted above human institutions, man was held superior to the State, and universal brotherhood supplanted the ideas of national power and glory."

But the world changed profoundly in the 19th century. The immensely complex theories of Friedrich Hegel, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Herbert Spencer, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud deconstructed Western man, breaking him into categories, boxes, longings, desires, and bits. The ideologues of the 19th century not only subverted thousands of years of finely honed ideas, dating back to Socrates, they also provided the means by which to seize, strangle, and suffocate the men of the West.

English historian Christopher Dawson presented the change with startling starkness:

   The history of the nineteenth century developed
   under the shadow of the French Revolution and
   the national liberal revolutions that followed
   it. A century of political, economic and social
   revolution, a century of world discovery, world
   conquest and world exploitation, it was also the
   great age of capitalism; and yet saw too the rise of
   socialism and communism and their attack upon
   the foundation of capitalist society.... When the
   century began, Jefferson was president of the
   United States, and George III was still King of
   England. When it ended Lenin already was planning
   the Russian Revolution.

In that short century, man and men went from wholeness to pieces.

Yet a remnant survived in the form of classical liberalism and conservatism. Each preserved much of the best of the past, arguing in favor of a complex, even unknowable individual person. The keenest minds of these salvaging philosophies had flourished in the late 18th century and shared deep Celtic origins: Adam Smith (1723-1790), often regarded as the father of classical liberalism, and Edmund Burke (1729-1797), holding the same position within modern conservatism.

It is now possible to see Burke and Smith as fighting a rear-guard action at the end of their age, synthesizing and defending the best thought each had inherited--much as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle came at the end of classical Athens; Cicero at the end of the Roman Republic; St. Augustine at the end of the Roman Empire; or Thomas More at the end of what scholar Stephen Smith has called the English springtime.

Labeling either man as this or that, however, does a disservice to their brilliance and obscures the important fact that Smith and Burke were close friends and even closer allies. Rooted in the intellectual and spiritual traditions of the West, each sought to understand the complexities of man not by narrowing our understanding to the merely biological, economic, or psychological but by expanding man into a whole yet mysterious being, each person unique from every other, never to be repeated in time or space.

While Smith might be regarded as a Stoic with Christian longings, Burke was a Christian with a love of Stoicism. Yeshiva University's James R. Otteson II has produced several excellent works that have become the standard by which all other scholarship on Adam Smith, if not the 18th century as a whole, must be measured. In his 2011 volume Adam Smith and in 2002's Adam Smith's Marketplace of Life, Otteson not only reveals the continuity in Smith's thought throughout his lifetime but also explains the mutual influence of Burke and Smith upon one another. On the Burke side, perhaps the most insightful scholar of the last half-century has been the late Peter J. …

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