The Celtic Minds of Adam Smith and Edmund Burke

In an article for The American Conservative, Bradley J. Birzer reflects on two of the finest 18th century minds who “shared deep Celtic origins: Adam Smith (1723–1790), often regarded as the father of classical liberalism, and Edmund Burke (1729–1797), holding the same position within modern conservatism.” What is the Celtic mind? Birzer writes:

The two Celtic minds described here readily embraced the Platonic, Stoic, Ciceronian, Pauline, and Augustinian understanding of a reality beyond this world, a republic greater than any commonwealth on earth. Even if our mortal republic has slipped from our grasp, another, more real republic existed beyond the confines of time. This is owing to man’s very nature. In the Western tradition, Cicero explained this most succinctly. A person, he wrote, is

endowed by the supreme god with a grand status at the time of its creation. It alone of all types and varieties of animate creatures has a share in reason and thought, which all the others lack. What is there, not just in humans, but in all heaven and earth, more divine that reason? When it has matured and come to perfection, it is properly named wisdom … reason forms the first bond between human and god.

Here is how Burke describes his belief in the order of the cosmos and man’s role within it:

Taking it for granted that I do not write to the disciples of the Parisian philosophy, I may assume that the awful Author of our being is the Author of our place in the order of existence—and that, having disposed and marshalled us by a divine tactic, not according to our will, but according to His, He has in and by that disposition virtually subjected us to act the part which belongs to the place assigned us. We have obligations to mankind at large, which are not in consequence of any special voluntary pact. They arise from the relation of man to man, and the relation of man to God, which relations are not matters of choice.

Birzer concludes:

But why the “Celtic Mind”? What explains how one of the most remote areas of Europe produced such fine intellects in so short of a time?

Of the various so-called Enlightenments of the 18th century, the Scottish Enlightenment proved to be the least like the others. The French Enlightenment attempted to take man back to a state of nature through the teachings of Rousseau and others—to erase civilization and start again—while the English Enlightenment promoted the bizarre and inhumane “pleasure and pain” calculus of Jeremy Bentham. The American Enlightenment really consisted only of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Rush, and a few other famous eccentrics.

Despite the religious skepticism of the Scottish Enlightenment, the Scots hoped to find the “common sense” of things, to discover universal principles of man without destroying the specific manifestations of men’s peculiarities. In the American colonies, one could find some of the best proponents of the Scottish Enlightenment in such diverse figures such as Charles Carroll, James Wilson, and John Witherspoon. Perhaps the answer to the “whys” and “hows” of the Celtic Mind is ultimately rather simple. Of the European Enlightenments, only the Celtic Mind attempted to engage the Western tradition without overthrowing it.

The Celtic Mind recognized and extended the Western vision of man. It sought not, like those of the other Enlightenments, to put man in a box as this or that. Even in its skepticism, the Celtic Mind embraced humility, not ego. If those of us who love order and liberty, labeling ourselves either conservatives or libertarians, did the same, we might have a chance to reclaim the field now possessed by the heirs of those darker Enlightenments—the neoconservatives, the militant liberals, and their legions of corporatist allies feeding Leviathan at home and bloody imperialism abroad.

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