U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Intellectual Prescience: Insight or Illusion?

maciagThe following guest post is by Drew Maciag, author of Edmund Burke in America: The Contested Career of the Father of Modern Conservatism

A prefatory note by Drew: “Upon reading Andy Seal’s excellent post on Why Richard Rorty Was Not a Prophet” (which now has a Part 2), an example from my own research instantly sprang to mind.  It’s taken me some time to respond because I was experiencing post-election stress disorder.  No harm done, this topic is timeless!”


The story is often told like this:

At a particularly crucial moment in Western history, a wise and learned man saw the future and recoiled in horror.  Few people accepted his dire predictions until they actually began to occur, then they marveled at the oracle’s foresight.  Curiously, the prophet divined the future by looking backward into history and to inherited customs, manners, institutions, laws, and religious practices.  When he observed rapid departures from long-held beliefs and patterns of behavior, he extrapolated current threats to their logical conclusions: which included widespread violence, terror, chaos, and authoritarian heroics.  The visionary intellectual died while civilization was still in peril, yet his example—and his fundamental principles—survived and congealed into a powerful school of thought.  For two hundred years, plenty of intellectuals who were unhappy with the transit of progress have lamented not only the original disaster (of not heeding the prophet early enough or completely enough), but all succeeding echoes of it—as if the tragedy of repeating historical errors has become an addiction.

If I oversimplify the story here—or overplay its drama—it is because I’m aiming for the purist rendition and I’m trying to convey the sense of epic scale that certain proponents of this myth-of-clairvoyance have been celebrating.  Did this famous case of “intellectual prescience” really conform to its legendary recapitulation?  And how might this example be relevant to the practice of intellectual history in general?

Let’s begin by fleshing out the details.  The case to which I’m alluding (with intentional vagueness until now) concerns Edmund Burke’s warning that the nascent French Revolution—initially viewed sympathetically, even positively, in England—would inevitably turn ugly.  More than that, he predicted specifics: the executions of the king and queen (although he guessed wrong about who would be guillotined first), the terror (he was an early adapter of the term “terrorist”), financial collapse, military adventurism, and civil war suppressed by an authoritarian strong man (Napoleon auditioned for that part by firing his “whiff of grapeshot” at royalists in Paris).  Finally, Burke understood that the radical ideas that spawned the French turmoil could never be eradicated, and could not be confined to their country of origin.  Numerous regurgitations of the seminal “bad revolution” have been identified by sundry observers ever since; certainly the Russian Revolution of the early 20th century has been the most prominent.

What lends extra sparkle to the story of Burke’s prognostications is how early in the course of events he seemed to discern the future path of destruction.  True, the Bastille had already fallen, and the Women’s March to Versailles had forced the court to relocate to Paris.  But Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France appeared (November 1790) at precisely the time the revolution seemed to be succeeding with minimal bloodshed and maximum idealism.  Unrest in the countryside (the Great Fear) had been quelled not by suppression but by the abolition of feudal privileges.  The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen had been issued and foreign conquest had been renounced; the selling of public offices (venality) had been abolished along with the nobility, and the abusive power of the church had been curbed.  The value of new money (assignats) had not yet deteriorated.  For the moment, it seemed that Louis XVI had reluctantly resigned himself to a diminished role as titular head-of-state.  Yet to Burke the sky was falling.  To him, even the summoning of the Estates General two years earlier had been unsettling.  And nothing outraged him more than a common mob’s entry into Marie Antoinette’s bedchamber, an act which symbolically killed chivalry and reduced the queen to a woman and a woman to an animal (his words); thus depriving France of “all the pleasing illusions” that bound society together and made the nation “lovely.”  No wonder contemporaries—including friends—worried that Burke was losing his grip on reality.

Then enlightened thinking hit the fan: the reign of terror, mass executions, and nearly twenty years of pan-European warfare.  Ridiculous sideshows like converting the Cathedral of Notre Dame into a Temple of Reason, or restarting the calendar at year one (even renaming and recalibrating the months) tainted the whole endeavor with a sense of hubristic absurdity.  Perhaps Burke (who died in 1797) had been right after all.  Possibly what we now call “social engineering” had tried to fool what was commonly believed to be “human nature” (Natural Law was another way of conceiving it)—and failed.


Just for the sake of argument (and only temporarily!) let’s assume that Burke was indeed prescient, in that he was substantially correct in his warnings about future developments.  What would this mean more broadly?  Since neither Burke nor his admirers have claimed he possessed mystical powers of fortune telling, the rational explanation hinges on Burke’s fundamental understanding of political, social, economic, and psychological realities as observed from past experience and continuing up to the present.  As I noted above, Burke’s ability to predict the future depended on his skill at extrapolating from known conditions (as opposed to, say, speculating from abstract principles—a method Burke prided himself on avoiding).  So the entire operation rested on just how clearly he analyzed history and current events.  Within such a paradigm, the successful prediction of future outcomes merely confirms that some “prescient” observer had a better, clearer, and sounder take on existing circumstances.  But is it enough to acknowledge this point and adopt it as a generally useful axiom?  (The reciprocal of this rule might be that anyone whose predictions fail to materialize is out of touch, insensitive to “signals,” uses faulty logic, is blinded by personal agendas, or simply is not as bright as those who, in retrospect, seem to “get it right.”)

As the late—occasionally slippery, often convincing, and usually insightful—Author Schlesinger, Jr. once hinted, it is possible to be right, “but for the wrong reasons,” and also possible to be wrong, “but for the right reasons.”  In all cases, it is the reasons that count, not necessarily whether or not someone’s projections ultimately pan out.  In any specific instance, random chance (good or bad luck) or truly unforeseeable factors can produce unexpected results just as easily as faulty reasoning or poor understanding can.  This cautionary premise is not restricted to history; it applies as well to sports competition, investments, career plans, business or military strategy, and love affairs.  To complicate matters, even in hindsight the reasons why things happened are not always certain, and excuses often pass for realizations.  There is also the matter of “spin,” which allows interested parties to argue in reverse: what really happened was ______, it was caused by ______, the lesson we should draw is ______.  If only intellectual history could be an exact science!  (Then again, the scientific method has yet to convince creationists or climate change hoax-meisters.)  Furthermore, even if an apparently prescient writer is judged to have been insightful enough to make accurate predictions, does it sensibly follow that the same acute insight extends to the larger body of his or her work?  With this in mind, let’s finish with Burke.


My purpose here is not to dissect the guts of the French Revolution; it is to contemplate the horror with which Burke feared its ghost.  There was, however, nothing original about Burke’s prediction that a breakdown of civil order would result in the rise of a dictator.  That line of thought had been commonplace since antiquity.  Burke’s specific suggestion that “some popular general” would become “master” of the nation could also have been induced by the recollection of Oliver Cromwell in the 1600s.  And only the most romantic of Burke’s admirers could weep with him over the demise of chivalry or noblesse oblige, honor codes that—to the extent they ever approximated their nostalgic idealizations—no longer supplied enough cultural glue to bind the social orders in France, Britain, or elsewhere.  (As Tom Paine put it, Burke pitied the plumage of a dying bird!)  Burke overestimated the extent to which the myths, trappings, and facades of the Old Regime still held their grip on the popular imagination; conversely, he underestimated the hatred and resentment the French populace held toward their corrupt and oppressive leaders and their institutions (he assumed France was more like England, hence more in need of moderate reform than comprehensive reconstruction).  Even Burke’s condemnation of assignats had less to do with monetary policy than to the currency’s basis in confiscated church property (an affront to religion was not what caused the subsequent inflation).  Most important, although Burke correctly predicted international war, he was errant in preemptively attributing it to a wicked French compulsion to remake Europe in its own enlightened image.  Instead the initial conflict was defensive in nature; preventing foreign royalists from restoring Bourbon control.

It is possible to identify points upon which Burke’s insights and foresights about the French Revolution can be assigned to each of the four corners of (what I’ll call) the Schlesinger Box (right for right reasons/right for wrong reasons/wrong for right reasons/wrong for wrong reasons).  But I’ll limit myself here to a general conclusion: Regarding the short run (say, the first ten years after the fall of the Bastille), Burke was right about several future events: sometimes for the right reasons and more often for wrong ones.  (Of course, individual judgments about the quality of someone’s thinking are largely subjective, and subjectivity is an Achilles’ heel of the search for intellectual prescience.)  Regarding the longer run (Western history since the Age of Revolution), Burke was still right about many aspects of human political behavior, but he was overwhelmingly wrong—because his reasoning was bad—about future developments.  Burke never believed societies could survive without hereditary aristocrats, established religions, or the routine veneration of laws and traditions that could not be presently understood.  He doubted the practicality of democracy, expanded suffrage, written constitutions, or separation of church and state.  (He didn’t think the United States would last very long, because it was too innovative.)  Burke’s economic opinions were a basket of inconsistencies, and they conflicted with his balanced and relatively static view of social hierarchy.  Finally, Burke feared any sharp, dramatic, or obvious break in historical continuity; possible favorable results were not worth the risk; even happy endings could not justify an irresponsible precedent.  Burke despised abuses of power and often crusaded for humane reforms.  Yet he distrusted change so much that he had to convince himself that positive improvements were at heart restorations to prior, healthier conditions.  The bottom line is that Burke was almost entirely wrong about the long-term consequences of the French Revolution, even if he was partly right about the immediate dangers of the rebellion proper.


This brings us back to the historiographical utility of prescience.  Burke deserves credit for instinctively grasping that the French Revolution was an event unprecedented in kind and irreversible in impact.  Indeed, this view is now commonly accepted.  What has yet to be settled (will it ever?) is the extent to which its substantive or catalytic effects on the ascent of modernity did more good than harm.  Did it ultimately grease the transition to secular, egalitarian, rights-based societies of freedom and opportunity, or did it (as some believe) pave the way for Stalin or even Hitler?  As for Burke’s foresight, he seems to have been pretty good at calculating likely reactions to unwise provocations; he did this very well regarding the American crisis, and to some degree regarding issues in Ireland and India.  But on a more fundamental level Burke was oblivious to the social, intellectual, ideological, and cultural transformations taking place during his lifetime.  If indeed he was a better fox than a hedgehog, or if his close vision was sharper than his distant eye, one wonders exactly how the example of his prescience can be employed as guides to political philosophy or as subjects of intellectual history.  This is especially so because his particular predictions represent a minute portion of his wide-ranging work.

Finally, the greater body of Burke’s writings is extremely rich; it is often insightful or interesting, and it is not too difficult to filter the still-relevant points from his outmoded contentions.  Given this, I find the attention some writers have focused on Burke’s intellectual prescience concerning events in France to be more of a distraction than a contribution to the appreciation of his thought.

One Thought on this Post

  1. Love this, Drew! Excellent. And I particularly appreciated this passage: “If only intellectual history could be an exact science! (Then again, the scientific method has yet to convince creationists or climate change hoax-meisters.)”- TL

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