Last year, my best friend and I wandered into an Oregon book store, where she picked up a novel by Portland journalist Brian Doyle. After she’d had sighed, chuckled, and laughed aloud a half-dozen times – and read me some passages – I downloaded it to my Kindle.
Mink River quickly found a place on my personal top ten list – so it’s hardly surprising that I picked up the sequel, The Plover, when it came out this spring.
As it happens, The Plover proved harder to get into. That’s no fault of the book. Lately, I’ve been reading mostly history, and when I read that The Plover’s protagonist – the wandering sailor, Declan O Donnell – had gone to sea with a set of Edmund Burke’s speeches, I was intrigued.
I’d heard of Burke, of course, in connection with the American Revolution. He was one of the small group of British Whig MPs who insisted that we Americans were right in opposing King George’s attempt to tax us without our consent.
Burke also wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France, which is often paired with Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man in paperback editions – offering two sharply conflicting perspectives on the French Revolution by two articulate thinkers, both of whom had supported America’s Revolution a few years earlier.
Anyway, the idea of a hard-handed seaman – even a fictional one - cruising the Pacific with multiple volumes of Burke stopped me in my tracks. What did Burke – about whom I knew so little - have to do with a contemporary novel of the sea?
What had I been missing?
I set aside the nautical adventures of Declan O Donnell and consulted friends online. It turned out several were big fans of Burke. Two – including a former student – offered positive reviews of different, recent biographies. I chose one – Conor Cruise O’Brien’s The Great Melody – and dived in.
It turns out Edmund Burke was one of the great men – and great minds – of the past five hundred years. This is particularly impressive, in that he was also a practicing politician.
Burke is considered the intellectual father of conservatism – though it’s hard to imagine him having much to say to today’s “Tea Party” populists. You see, Burke believed in serving the people, but he wasn’t at all confident that the people knew what was best for them.
I could spend a year writing columns informed by the brilliance of Burke – for this man, a contemporary of our Founders, had much to say which relates to our own times. For today, let’s focus on Burke’s idea of “natural aristocracy.”
Burke believed that a free constitution depends upon the leadership of individuals blessed with excellent education, good upbringing, and important formative experiences.
These “natural aristocrats” are the natural leaders of a free society.
Burke’s “natural aristocracy” is distinctly elitist – and thus, very “politically incorrect” by today’s ultra-democratic standards. Still – when you get down to it – most of us honor his essential notion whenever we embrace some political, religious or opinion leader.
We don’t like to admit it, but we’re usually more comfortable when following someone we look up to. The problem is knowing what sort of qualities such a leader should possess.
For Burke, society’s natural leaders start out with the sort of education which builds character. They are habitually honorable and courageous – possessed of a sense of duty to their fellow citizens which tempers their natural self-interest.
They are also “gentlemen” – or “gentlewomen” – whose position in life gives them sufficient time and leisure to study their own society and the world at large. They have travelled, both geographically and temporally – through the study of the past.
They also have considerable practical experience – as attorneys, magistrates, merchants, military officers, engineers, etc. They know “the real world.” They have exercised authority over others.
In short, Burke believed in an unofficial version of the Roman Republic’s cursus honorum – that set of real-world experiences which fits an individual for the task of governing.
Not since George H. W. Bush has this country had a President who would have met Burke’s standard of a “natural aristocrat.” Since then, we haven’t come close.
Bill Clinton, a small-state governor with no international or Washington experience, never lived up to his great promise.
George W. Bush, an unreflective, over-confident “heir,” demonstrated consistent poor judgment which created huge problems with which we are still wrestling.
Barack Obama – brilliant, but fatally inexperienced – has too much confidence in the power of words, but no clear idea about when or how to take action.
After a quarter-century of misgovernment, we could use a prudent, experienced “natural aristocrat” with the wisdom to know what must be done – and the firmness of character to do it.
2016 is not far off. Perhaps we should be looking for someone Edmund Burke would have approved.