Historical consciousness of eighteenth-century Britain: Viscount Bolingbroke and Edmund Burke
How did eighteenth-century Britain deal with the tension between its traditional political and religious foundations and the rise of commercial society with its emphases on individual self-interest and the accumulation of wealth? This thesis explores one major response to the tension – the effort to discern a historical consciousness that would help to understand change and to preserve the social order. It focuses on two major conservative thinkers: Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751) and Edmund Burke (1729-1797), and it shows how their different understandings of the historical consciousness shaped their attitudes toward the emerging commercial society, individual self-interest, the expansion of empire, and political reform movements. The thesis maintains that Bolingbroke and Burke represented two distinct versions of historical consciousness. Bolingbroke’s historical consciousness was characterized by a linear view of history which considered the past, present and future as separate spaces of time. The thesis shows how Bolingbroke’s rejection of the political management and promotion of commercial interests represented by Sir Robert Walpole’s Whig party was based on an historical consciousness that idealized England’s ancient constitution and traditional social morality, and was motivated by a patriotic effort to restore a past golden age. The thesis also shows how Bolingbroke’s historical consciousness reflected his Deist religious beliefs, his notion of natural law, and his rationalist philosophical approaches. The thesis shows how Bolingbroke’s radical historical consciousness was later taken up by French Enlightenment philosophers and English Dissenters – who in turn developed views of social progress based on natural rights theory. Edmund Burke, on the other hand, saw a threat to the existing order coming from these emphases on natural law and natural rights. Burke’s historical consciousness confronted Bolingbroke and his successors by taking fundamentally different positions on the origin and formation of civil order, on continuity and change of society, and on the relationship between divine will, human reason and history. Burke’s historical consciousness assumed that society was a living partnership between different generations. The past, the present and the future were not separate spaces of time but co-existed in the same space of time, and society was constantly in a changeable state, as a union of the principles of “renovation”, “permanence” and “change”. Burke rejected Bolingbroke’s idea of a past golden age and an ancient constitution. For Burke, society and the state were offspring of social conventions and human history, rather than of natural law and natural rights. Moreover, Burke conceived human history as unpredictable, shaped by uncertain and obscure factors. There was, for Burke, no ultimate cause or general rule determining the course of history. The thesis concludes that Burke understood the history of human society to be a process that transcended any systematic design that could be discerned by human reason alone.