Courtesy Reuters

The "New Spirit" and Its Critics

IN 1754 the long-heralded philosophical works of Lord Bolingbroke were published. To Edmund Burke they constituted an effort to exclude God from his universe as a wholly unnecessary phenomenon, and he composed "A Vindication of Natural Society" as an indignant protest. The form of this protest was a seriously argued examination of all merely human institutions, with a view to demonstrating "that every endeavor which the art and policy of mankind has used from the beginning of the world until this day, in order to relieve or cure natural ills, has only served to introduce new mischiefs or to aggravate or inflame the old." This thesis, set forth with stately logic and illustrated by critical examinations in all the fields of political activity, leads the reader, with solemn power, to the conviction that all human efforts to improve the world in which we live are necessarily fruitless and that the only true state of happiness for mankind is that Edenic condition in which our first parents were before wisdom, in the form of a serpent, had beguiled them into a reliance upon mere human powers for improvement.

But, of course, Burke was playful and was imposing upon us with sham artillery. By using Bolingbroke's method, he destroys his conclusion and then proves that man, too, is worse than useless in the universe in which Bolingbroke had sought to place him as the dominant and supreme if not solitary figure. Burke knew, as we know when we read his paper, that he was exemplifying one of those common states of mind which make progress difficult. The fact is that all efforts to solve human problems are beset by unidentic twin evils. On the one hand, we have the enthusiast who declines to see difficulties, is indifferent to the lessons of history, takes no account of the deep ruts worn by mental habit and, by expecting too much, either in speed or achievement, takes a flight from reality and accomplishes less than the possible.

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