Burke’s first extended publication has baffled commentators over two centuries. For Thomas Burgh it was a juvenile squib. To William Godwin, who exploited its material for his own ends, it was ‘a treatise in which the evils of the existing political institutions are displayed… while the intention of the author was to show that these evils were to be considered as trivial’, whilst to Lord Wedgwood it offered ‘arguments against authority’. To the less engaged mind of Sir George Clark it was ‘an ironical book which still puzzles commentators who try to interpret its purpose’. The work, viewed by itself, is evidently not easy to interpret.
Its purpose is more readily intelligible if we recollect Burke’s position on religion and society. Deism, which he had rejected, suggested that revelation was inessential to the divine economy because its benefits were confined to a limited section of mankind. If we set this objection in a general form we have: any state of affairs whose goods are distributed irregularly lack a properly divine warrant. A Vindication applied this formula to the social order. In particular it suggests that political and social hierarchy – in the language of the piece Subordination – was responsible for man’s ills.
Burke’s argument is usually described as whimsical or ironical. It focusses upon the reductio ad absurdum of a single assumption, namely the sufficiency of nature. Deism suggested that man’s natural faculties sufficed for his salvation and that revelation was superfluous or, indeed, an opportunity for evil. Burke’s piece looks to the consequences of applying the same assumption to society. It treats man’s natural state as pre-political and finds the source of his misfortunes in government. For instance, just as the deists preferred natural theology to positive, so the piece prefers the claims of the state of nature (the natural society of the title) to those of civil (or ‘artificial’) society.
1. Burke, Edmund, and Ian Harris. Pre-Revolutionary Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993. Print. 4-5.