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Feelings and the Burkean Contract by Sebastian Morello

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Essay

Feelings and the Burkean Contract

In twilight’s infancy, as the sun set, the field through which my dog and I passed was bathed in the gold that broke through the clouds, a light that reflected as silver-blue off the burned ears atop the long grass. The hills rolled into the distance where a train raced through the otherwise peaceful country. Little copses and overgrown hedgerows rang with the squawks of squabbling rooks and jackdaws. My dog stood entranced, fixed on a hare at the other end of the field that he knew he’d never catch. Fat wood pigeons cooed in the treetops of the elms and oaks, which danced in the gentle wind to the calls of the surrounding creatures.

I looked around, and I saw that the world was gift. There are complex metaphysical arguments from contingency by which one can argue that the proper way to see the world is through the prism of Giver, gift, and recipient. To grasp the structure of a satisfying philosophical case, however, is quite different to responding to the world as gift with the appropriate affectivity. One thing is to know that the world is gift, another thing is to feel gratitude in the reception of it.

Whilst there is a primary, ontological sense by which the world we inhabit can be understood as gift, there is also an historical sense. This latter sense, it seems to me, is of the utmost importance not only for developing the proper affectivity to respond appropriately to the world, but also that one may in steps come to see the reasonableness of the metaphysical case.

My dog and I, taking our evening walk, making our way across that field, stopped, and looked out. I intentionally attended to the world revealed before me. Then, having gazed upon those tawny hills that flanked the vale which ran to the retreating sun, I discerned the presence of the holy Lamb of God on England’s pleasant pastures seen. This great landscape, however, gave way to the earth under my boots. I looked at the ground, and I beheld an astonishing spectacle.

The field itself, to which I had given so little attention, was a technicoloured marvel. Greens, lilacs, oranges, yellows, blues, pinks, all unfolded below. In the square foot at which I alone stared, there must have been over fifty grass species. The great panorama of which I was a part disappeared from my mind’s eye as I gaped with amazement at the kaleidoscopic wonder which bended to my trampling bulk.

This vision was not merely a miracle of nature, but of art. From the 17th century onwards, farmers used grass manuals to work out which grasses could be grown together, and how to make the most nutritious and diverse meadows for the perfect livestock pasture. This breathtaking biodiversity at which I gawked was the product of human ingenuity down the centuries. The field over which I all too mindlessly wandered was pregnant with the toil and sweat of generations. The thought that our spawn might come and fail to see what I saw, and build some monstrous shopping centre over this meadow where rabbits played and jays bickered, was a dark imagining sufficient to break my heart. 

The feelings that accompany experiences of this kind are those which are necessary to move the intellect, that one may see oneself not as an isolated being that has been dropped into the void and is soon to expire. Rather, one sees oneself as a life in a great stream of life, emerging out of the story of one’s ancestors and wider community, in turn to be perpetuated through the rising of one’s progeny, whose flourishing will be causally related to one’s own. The world, one sees, but more importantly one feels, is bestowed by the great council of the dead who have a say in the discussion of the living, those ephemeral beings who are the beneficiaries of ancient labour. We enjoy what we have because when we didn’t exist, we were nonetheless kept in mind by those who have ceased to wander here below, and that spiritual assembly now demands that we think of those yet to come.

This, in the end, is the problem with the Burkean Contract, which is no contract at all, but a moral covenant between the dead, the living, and the unborn. It is very difficult to argue for the Burkean Contract. If one sees oneself as a morally isolated, radical individual for whom history means nothing and for whom nothing is owed to the future, no amount of disputation will let in the light. The Burkean Contract, it seems to me, denotes a mystery, the true meaning of which is only unveiled when the right feelings are conjured up within by the experience of reality as gift.

People exclusively buy furniture now rather than inherit it. They deem the fashions of the past to belong to the past, and they do not feel that the past belongs to them. Into the skip the furniture therefore goes. Each generation believes that it is starting from scratch, and must surround itself with the disposable rubbish that testifies to such an erroneous belief. The remarkable success of Ikea is parasitic on this unspoken conviction held by nearly all in the West. Inherited things, and old things, are didactic. They sit there in a corner, or silently cradle one’s bottom, and mutely teach us that the past is present, and that conserved things bestow value.

Can the feelings necessary to grasp the Burkean Contract be taught? I think they can. But they cannot be easily taught, it seems to me, through propositional pronouncements. Rather, the fostering of these feelings begins with exposure to story-telling, especially of national legends, fairy tales, and fables. More serious literature can then be introduced. Then, later, feelings can also be fostered through traditional folk music. Such listening should in turn allow for some sensitivity to the great achievements of classical music, and Vaughan Williams provides wonderful transitionary pieces. Plays, recitals, and dances are all necessary. Sports and hobbies supplement this induction into a meaningful life. local fairs and visits to places of historical importance are essential too. Finally, poetry. The reason why the poet has always had a quasi-mystical status in our civilisation is because he is the true teacher of feelings. We have always known that feelings can be taught, and that failure to teach feelings will have a catastrophic effect on our civilisation. And therefore, we have always known that the poet must be esteemed.

Corresponding to the teachability of feelings is the notion that feelings can be untaught. (This was the point brilliantly made, of course, by C.S. Lewis in the first chapter of The Abolition of Man.) Our entire ‘pop culture’ operates to undo the proper cultivation of affectivity that our civilisational inheritance would otherwise organically nurture. If we lose our capacity for the affectivity presupposed by the Burkean Contract, then we lose our civilisation altogether. Quite literally, we cease to be a people, and become isolated individuals. Unfeeling, solipsistic individuals are not persons but something else. 

Many on the Right have unfortunately habituated the tendency to oppose rational argument to feelings, and they see their social and political opponents to be dominated by the latter. In fact, the problem we have today is not the absence of reason and the dominance of feeling, but the ascendency of bad reasoning and the supremacy of self-directed fake emotion—all cultivated by an absence of real culture. What is desperately needed is an education in feelings, and that education begins with real culture and ends with signing the Burkean Contract in one’s blood.

Sebastian Morello is a lecturer, public speaker, and columnist. Trained by Sir Roger Scruton, he has published books on philosophy, history, and education. He lives in Bedfordshire, England, with his wife and children. He is essays editor of The European Conservative.

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