Romantic Conservatism in Burke, Wordsworth, and Wendell Berry


Romantic literature manifests a nascent ecological consciousness, according to Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre, “through its questioning of economic and technological progress and through its utopian aspiration to restore the lost harmony between humans and nature” (229). Foreseeing that the rise and progress of industrial modernity might irreversibly erode both the landscape and local communities, Romantic literature questions humanistic, technological progressivism while emphasizing the interdependence between humans and the non-human world. The Romantics’ proto-ecological awareness is often considered a natural outgrowth of the liberal revolutionary fervor of the period. Jonathan Bate argues, for example, that the Romantic view explores “the relationship between the Love of Nature and the Love of Mankind and, conversely, between the Rights of Man and the Rights of Nature” (Romantic Ecology 33). While Bate claims that this position “transcends the politics of both Paine and Burke,” by adopting the liberal, individualistic “Rights of Man” as his basis for understanding the Romantic view of nature, he affirms a connection between liberal progressivism and environmental conservation. 1 In this essay, I return to the famous political debate that Bate evokes—the debate between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine over the legitimacy of liberal, individual rights—in order to explore the nascent environmental ethics implicit in the debate.

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