We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.
(Edmund Burke, Reflections on the French Revolution)
If you do a quick Google Search for “Edmund-Burke +own-private-stock-of-reason”, you'll find plenty of web pages where that comment on the English attitude to reason is quoted. A few bloggers seem taken with it too. And why not? It's such a fine, juicy looking cherry and always looks ripe for the picking. It has a certain plausibility too, once you get past the distracting metaphor. No wonder that it's considered a good decoration for conservative confections.
What Burke appears to be saying is that no individual is a perfect reasoner – a reasonable enough proposition – and therefore, in making political decisions, we ought to have regard to past practice – tradition – which represents the accumulated wisdom of centuries. That's how Australia's own Owen Harries, presents Burke's remark in a 2003 article published at
If the complexity of society and the political order was one reason Burke feared radical and rapid change, a second and just as powerful reason was his reservation about the proposed engine of change: the role of reason in human affairs. Burke rejected the Enlightenment view of man as a predominantly rational, calculating, logical being. His rational side exists, but it is a small part of his total make-up. “We are afraid,” said Burke, “to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small” Habit, instinct, custom, faith, reverence, prejudice—the accumulated practical knowledge acquired through experience, all this was more important than abstract reasoning. Collectively, and for better or worse, it constituted man’s nature. (my emphasis)
Kudos to Harries for at least mentioning prejudice in that emphasised sentence, although it does occupy last place in a list of its more respectable relatives. What Harries glosses over here is Burke's very explicit preference for prejudice over reason (others don't gloss over this and even more kudos to them). This isn't an isolated example, but it shouldn't be taken as typical of Harries, or Burkean conservatives in general.
We'll come back to that point later. First, let's take a look at the rest of the bunch that Burke's much prized cherry came from:
You see, Sir, that in this enlightened age I am bold enough to confess, that we are generally men of untaught feelings; that instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree, and, to take more shame to ourselves, we cherish them because they are prejudices; and the longer they have lasted, and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them. We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages. Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, and they seldom fail, they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, than to cast away the coat of prejudice, and to leave nothing but the naked reason; because prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence. Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, sceptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.
Your literary men, and your politicians, and so do the whole clan of the enlightened among us, essentially differ in these points. They have no respect for the wisdom of others; but they pay it off by a very full measure of confidence in their own... (my emphases)
I'm particularly taken with this bit of the passage:
Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, and they seldom fail...
At first, I thought that last remark – the declaration that England's men of speculation seldom failed when they went looking for the latent wisdom in general prejudices – might have satiric intent. It does sound a bit sardonic, but Burke is absolutely in earnest. He really does prefer prejudice over reason, to the extent that his “Reflections” are more of a long rant, worthy of any modern day RWDB. In the course of this rant, Burke vents quite a few general prejudices that he cherishes to a considerable degree – such as in this striking passage, where he bemoans the fact that they just don't make revolutionaries like they used to:
Other revolutions have been conducted by persons, who, whilst they attempted or affected changes in the commonwealth, sanctified their ambition by advancing the dignity of the people whose peace they troubled. They had long views. They aimed at the rule, not at the destruction, of their country. They were men of GREAT civil, and GREAT military talents, and if the terror, the ornament of their age. They were NOT like JEW BROKERS, contending with each other who could best remedy with FRAUDULENT circulation and depreciated paper the WRETCHEDNESS and RUIN brought on their country by their DEGENERATE councils.
These disturbers were not so much like men usurping power, as asserting their NATURAL PLACE in society. Their rising was to illuminate and beautify the world. Their conquest over their competitors was by outshining them... I do not say, that the virtues of such men were to be taken as a balance to their crimes; but they were some corrective to their effects... Such were your whole race of Guises, Condes, and Colignis. Such the Richelieus, who in more quiet times acted in the spirit of a civil war... your present confusion, like a palsy, has attacked the FOUNTAIN OF LIFE ITSELF. Every person in your country, in a situation to be actuated by a principle of honour, is disgraced and degraded... But this generation will quickly pass away. The next generation of the “nobility” will resemble the ARTIFICERS and CLOWNS, and MONEY-JOBBERS, USERERS, and JEWS, who will be always their fellows, sometimes their masters. (my shouting and scare quotes)
According to Burke, and his modern disciples, every one of the prejudices he displays here has, at its core, a “latent wisdom” that might be laid bare by a “man of speculation”. Burke's aversion to “money-jobbers, userers, and Jews” must be considered, from a Burkean viewpoint, as the sort of general prejudice that is beneficial to man and society. There are good grounds for supposing that it was, in Burke's time, a general prejudice – either that or Burke seriously misunderstood his readership and he was, by the standard of his own times as well as ours, a stupid bigot. But no-one wants to go there, surely?
Let's put that aside and, on Burke's behalf, state the question we would want a man of speculation to answer:
Why is it a good thing for decent Christian gentlemen to hold and even cherish a deep aversion to money-jobbers, userers, and Jews?
Fallacy twitchers will notice that a couple of prior question has been left begging in phrasing this question:
Is it a good thing for decent Christian gentlemen to hold and even cherish a deep aversion to money-jobbers, userers, and Jews? If so, for whom?
I propose to leave those two questions – important as you might think them – to their own devices and focus on the original question. If it's good enough for the acknowledged progenitor of modern conservatism, it's good enough for me.
A short answer to the Burke worthy question – one that avoids delving into the troublesome history of the Jews' position in English society – is that the commercial activities favoured by Jews – money jobbing and usury – are of a kind, that if unchecked, lead to a disorderly state of society. That's really all we need, but if we cared to press our hypothetical man of speculation, we might obtain a more detailed account of the kinds of disorder that money-jobbing and usury lead to. Personally, I wouldn't care to press that question.
Some might think this answer lacks a little depth but our task, as men of speculation is not to indulge ourselves – particularly not if we are inclined to the sort of dangerous curiosity that might lead to such inquiries as might explode the general prejudice against Jews – but to indulge Mr Burke. The truth (or truths) we might seek – perhaps through a study of the history of relations between Jewish money-jobbers and usurers, on the one hand, and Christian gentlemen on the other – are not what Mr Burke wants. Especially if our inquiries should lead us to conclude that, however conducive it may be to maintaining a particular social order (one, for example where low-born merchants know their place and don't amass fortunes greater than those of their social betters – the landed gentry and the clergy), it might be a little harsh on the Jews. Or, worse yet, that the social order that was served by this prejudice was a pretty rotten one. Would it be wise to impart such findings to Mr Burke and his fellow Christian gentlemen?
I think not – Mr Burke might take us for that most despicable of creatures, a man of enlightenment and respond accordingly. Worse, we place ourselves at risk of succumbing to a belief in democracy, a state of civil society that is not just disorderly, but downright unseemly:
A government of five hundred country attornies and obscure curates is not good for twenty-four millions of men, though it were chosen by eight and forty millions; nor is it the better for being guided by a dozen of persons of quality, who have betrayed their trust in order to obtain that power. At present, you seem in everything to have strayed out of the high road of nature. The property of France does not govern it.(Cross posted at Larvatus Prodeo)