On the Causes of Our Discontents

Courtesy Reuters

In 1770 Edmund Burke, that greatest of late eighteenth-century English conservatives and friend of America, published his famous tract entitled "Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents." Among its opening lines are some which, reread today, carry a contemporaneousness that is as inescapable as it is striking:

To complain of the age we live in, to murmur at the present possessors of power, to lament the past, to conceive extravagant hopes of the future, are the common dispositions of the greatest part of mankind. . . . There is hardly a man in or out of power, who holds any other language: That government is at once dreaded and contemned; that the laws are despoiled of all their respected and salutary terrours; that their inaction is a subject of ridicule, and their exertion of abhorrence; that rank, and office, and title, and all the solemn plausibilities of the world, have lost their reverence and effect; that our foreign politicks are as much deranged as our domestick economy; . . . that we know neither how to yield nor how to enforce; that hardly any thing above or below, abroad or at home, is sound and entire; but that disconnexion and confusion, in offices, in parties, in families, in the nation, prevail beyond the disorders of any former time: these are facts universally admitted.

Burke thereupon offered to the public of two hundred years ago his thoughts on the causes of the discontents which he saw all around him.

Without presuming to emulate Burke, or to offer anything as luminous in phraseology, as insightful in psychology, or as overreaching in concept, let me submit four thoughts in particular:

On Complexity as a Way of Life; On Policy as the Prisoner of Paradox; On the Use and Abuse of Ambiguity; and On Keeping Our National Interest Interesting. One way or another, each of them is relevant to our present discontents.


We are all discontented now. Almost everyone is discontented with the

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