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Conservatism, Conservative, Edmund Burke

>Edmund Burke and Conservatism: How Far We Have Drifted

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Most people have heard of the quote attributed to Edmund Burke: “the only thing necessary for evil men to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Yet this quote, which itself is spurious, may be the only bit of trivia connected to the name of the British Parliament member Edmund Burke in the American mind.

Such a thing is a recent phenomena. Few American students left high school before 1970 without reading “On Conciliation with America,” a speech to Parliament advocating a peaceful resolution to the concerns and protests of the American colonists. Burke was in the minority, and instead a policy of strong handed posturing instead led the British into a long war they eventually tired of, giving us our country by default. Yet, looking at many of his positions, we would barely believe that Edmund Burke is considered by most intellectual historians as the founder of modern conservatism. And frankly, that fact is more sad than ironic.

Perhaps we could get past a few of his positions such as:

1) strong advocation of diplomacy with those committing guerrilla acts (in America)
2) support for rights of religious minorities like Catholics Jews and Unitarians,
3) support for the just governing of “foreigners” living under rule but who were non-citizens (in India and Ireland).

Many claiming the label of Conservative in America, especially as of late, share more in common with classical liberalism than Burkean prudence. These supposed American Conservatives are more likely to identify with:

George W. Bush talking about the simple desire by all people for democracy and freedom and doing away with old governments, rather than Burke:

“The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity: and therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature, or to the quality of his affairs. When I hear the simplicity of contrivance aimed at and boasted of in any new political constitutions, I am at no loss to decide that the artificers are grossly ignorant of their trade, or totally negligent of their duty. The simple governments are fundamentally defective, to say no worse of them. “

Thomas Jefferson when he proclaims that Liberty requires frequent revolution and the “watering of the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants” and innovation rather than Edmund Burke who wrote:

“instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree, and, to take more shame to ourselves, we cherish them because they are prejudices; and the longer they have lasted, and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.”

Thomas Paine who proclaimed the glories of democracy and majority rule, rather than Burke who said:

“A perfect democracy is therefore the most shameless thing in the world. As it is the most shameless, it is also the most fearless…that in a democracy, the majority of the citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppressions upon the minority, whenever strong divisions prevail in that kind of polity, as they often must; and that oppression of the minority will extend to far greater numbers, and will be carried on with much greater fury, than can almost ever be apprehended from the dominion of a single scepter.”

Thomas Paine who thought that Government exists for the purpose of granting us our natural rights, rather than Burke who said:

“Government is not made in virtue of natural rights, which may and do exist in total independence of it; and exist in much greater clearness, and in a much greater degree of abstract perfection: but their abstract perfection is their practical defect. By having a right to everything they want everything. Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. Men have a right that these wants should be provided for by this wisdom. Among these wants is to be reckoned the want, out of civil society, of a sufficient restraint upon their passions.”

This is not to say Edmund Burke was right on everything he did and said. It is to say, Conservatism is a more endangered worldview than most realize, and if you value an optimistic view of human capacity in democracy, liberty above justice, innovation above tradition, and democracy as the only legitimate form of government, you may be a lot of things, and very American, but not conservative. Well, not Burkean at least.

[If I haven’t discouraged you by now, I’d recommend reading Burke’s “On the Revolution in France” with Conor Cruise O’Brien’s great intorduction to get a picture of his conservative thought. Also, Russell Kirk wrote a great short intellectual biography of Burke, and traces his founding of Conservatism in “The Conservative Mind.”].

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Discussion

34 thoughts on “>Edmund Burke and Conservatism: How Far We Have Drifted

  1. >he tells them he is elected to vote his conscience which is regulated by God, not just what the majority of them think.I can tell I’m going to like Burke already!

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | August 3, 2008, 1:08 am
  2. >His response to the events in France is probably best: On the Revolution in France.To see more of his thought,The Portable Edmund Burke is a good selection. Just for fun, I love Burke’s address to the voters in Bristol, where he tells them he is elected to vote his conscience which is regulated by God, not just what the majority of them think. They promptly voted him out…

    Posted by Jared Nelson | August 3, 2008, 1:04 am
  3. >Where would you suggest one begin with Burke’s works?

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | August 3, 2008, 12:36 am
  4. >I just found a public domain copy of the 12-volume Works of Burke for the Sony Reader. It’s on board my little reading buddy; now the question is if and when I’ll be able to dig into it…

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | August 2, 2008, 9:23 pm
  5. >Honestly, Burke didn’t interact much with a pure Calvinism, but did with Richard Hooker, and some contemporaries, such as Adam Smith and Hume (whom he liked his history, but not philosophy).Burke did thank William Wilberforce before he died for his book he wrote, saying it helped him in matters of religion more than any other book he read.

    Posted by Jared Nelson | August 2, 2008, 8:40 pm
  6. >I’m not sure how Burke responded (or whether he did) to Calvinist polemics, so I’ll punt that one to Jared.LOL. I suppose I am being a little unfair to evaluate Burke 200+ years later based on philosophical developments to which he had no access. I don’t know Burke. I trust Jared’s evaluation that he was a very astute political theorist. From the little bit I’ve read (dictionary articles) in the last couple days, I think he was on the right side of the French and American revolutions.Honestly, I wasn’t going to comment. But then Jared egged me on. 😦

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | August 2, 2008, 8:15 pm
  7. >I found the Calvin reference. Calvin speaks of “this natural law” with reference to the human conscience. He seems to have Romans 2 in mind. In his further explanation, it is apparent that he doesn’t view the conscience as a means of autonomy. If that is what Thomistic natural law is, then I have no problem with it. But I question the usefulness of referring to the conscience as natural law. The conscience is an aspect of human nature, but I wouldn’t think of it, properly speaking, as a law in itself. I would think of it as a receptor to the general revelation of the divine nature. In other words, the conscience is not a power in itself, it is a faculty or mechanism whereby awareness to God’s power and character is gained and maintained.

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | August 2, 2008, 8:11 pm
  8. >Doh! He already returned the punt.My bad.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | August 2, 2008, 8:04 pm
  9. >I think he’s doing political theory, not necessarily epistemology. I’m not sure how Burke responded (or whether he did) to Calvinist polemics, so I’ll punt that one to Jared.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | August 2, 2008, 8:02 pm
  10. >So what Burke seems to be saying is that attempts to base political decisions on a singular “human nature” that one could sum up in a paragraph will necessarily miss the complex of realities that human community generates.How can Burke reach this conclusion standing on the ground of autonomous reason?

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | August 2, 2008, 7:55 pm
  11. >I think the charge of autonomy is a charge that could be rendered against the French Revolutionaries, but Burke made reference to it as a proof men are dependent on God’s Law and not their own reason or whims to set up government. In a large part, Thomistic Natural Law is general revelation, not something separate or a natural good in man. Moral Natural Law is different than the physical natural laws like gravity because the are able to be violated by man.I don’t know how to be more specific on Calvin. Vol 1, book 2, chapter 8, just a few paragraphs in he speaks about natural law, though as something vague and clarified by special revelation.

    Posted by Jared Nelson | August 2, 2008, 7:52 pm
  12. >Sorry typos.Jared,On Romans 2:14-15, the text says that Gentiles without the law (i.e. the special revelation) do the law by nature (i.e. general revelation). It doesn’t say they do the law because the law itself is of their nature.Rather than teaching a concept of natural law (i.e. autonomy), when Paul speaks of “doing what the law requires by nature” and “show[ing] that the law is written on their hearts”, I think the better interpretation is that Paul is further explicating what he has already said in Romans 1:20, “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” In other words, he is teaching that God has revealed his character through and to the creation in such a way that all humanity knows the ultimate good (i.e. God) and is responsible for either accepting or rejecting him. Gentiles sometimes accept the good partially, even without having special revelation (the law). Why? Because they know the good through general revelation, not because it is part of their nature (i.e. natural law).I scanned Calvin but didn’t see the teaching to which you were referring. Could you be more specific with the reference?

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | August 2, 2008, 7:42 pm
  13. >I don’t know. Burke doesn’t seem to be skeptical of his own ability to formulate a general principle of skepticism when he writes:”The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity: and therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature, or to the quality of his affairs.”You’re treating complexity as a simple essence rather than shorthand for… well, something more complex. To risk anachronism for a moment, it’s analogous to Clifford Geertz’s theory of thick description–Burke seems to be steering away from is a reductionism that would reduce complex systems to simple, losing the relationships between elements in the headlong pursuit of radical one-law aesthetic. To risk another anachronism, it’s not unlike the astronomical concept of “dark matter”–it’s not as if there’s one, simple, known substance called “dark matter” (so that one could have three cups, one full of water, one of oil, and one of dark matter); rather, “dark matter” signifies matter whose causes are not yet intelligible.So what Burke seems to be saying is that attempts to base political decisions on a singular “human nature” that one could sum up in a paragraph will necessarily miss the complex of realities that human community generates.I tend to be more Burkean than liberal in this sense.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | August 2, 2008, 2:16 pm
  14. >Rom 2:14 When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.Rom 2:15 They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse themMen have the law by nature written on their hearts. This is not self-autonomy but another means of God’s self-revelation. Not all knowledge is found in special revelation. There are plenty of “realms of knowledge” that function apart from special revelation including medical science, advanced mathematics, etc. Even Calvin allows for natural law dictating on moral law, though Scripture clarifies it. (Institutes Book 2, Chapter 8)

    Posted by Jared Nelson | August 2, 2008, 1:22 pm
  15. >If you know anything about Burke, you know more than me. I’ve never read anything he wrote or anything about what he wrote, except what you’ve written.Nonetheless, I do reject the concept of Aristotelian-Thomistic natural law on the grounds that it is by definition auto-nomy (self-law) of the creation. And if humanity is included as part of that creation, then natural law includes human autonomy. And any system that presupposes human autonomy is ultimately self-defeating, because it leads to either the self-referentially provable assertions of rationalism or the self-referentially incoherent assertions (i.e. abject skepticism) of empiricism or the postulations of two realms of knowledge whereby God is separated from his “autonomous” creation in the quest for scientific certainty.I understand that Aquinas didn’t draw his concept of natural law out to the conclusions of enlightenment philosophers (and, as you have said, neither did Burke). But I think that is, nonetheless, where consistency leads.

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | August 2, 2008, 3:26 am
  16. >I defend Burke because I spent a year reading all I could by him and about him and writing a 50 page thesis paper on how Burke was influenced by Natural Law thought in its classical form (i.e. Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas) and so was not a clone of Hume or Bentham or modern natural law as some have thought.

    Posted by Jared Nelson | August 1, 2008, 11:52 pm
  17. >I think you are assuming Burke is Kant.I assume everyone who is not Van Tillian is Kant. 🙂 Just kidding, kind of . . .

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | August 1, 2008, 11:25 pm
  18. >So he’s assuming everything must be known in order to formulate a general principle?This turnabout is fun. Feel free to T-bone me or just flick me off if you get tired. 🙂

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | August 1, 2008, 11:23 pm
  19. >Burke didn’t say he didn’t know anything, but that no one knew everything about man and his nature in order to make a perfect government.

    Posted by Jared Nelson | August 1, 2008, 10:19 pm
  20. >Ok, I don’t know what you are getting at then. I think you are assuming Burke is Kant.

    Posted by Jared Nelson | August 1, 2008, 10:18 pm
  21. >Again, certainty of knowledge and knowledge itself are two different things.

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | August 1, 2008, 9:23 pm
  22. >It’s the same with the post you just posted or Luther’s reasoning of the limits of reason. Burke wrote philosophy, he did not think reason useless, but thought it was limited. And human capacity to encompass in his thought all factors leading to good governance in one assembly or kingship was limited. Has anyone written a systematic theology building on no previous theologians? Why then do politicians and political scientists think they can do so with governmental institutions?

    Posted by Jared Nelson | August 1, 2008, 8:22 pm
  23. >I don’t know. Burke doesn’t seem to be skeptical of his own ability to formulate a general principle of skepticism when he writes: “The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity: and therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature, or to the quality of his affairs.”He seems pretty certain about it. But how can one be certain about skepticism? And if he can’t be certain, how could he compel anyone to agree with him?If human nature/society is so intricate and complex, how did Burke come to a general principled conclusion about it? Is he somehow above the fray so that he is able to make sense of it? If so, hasn’t he defeated his own premise of unassailable intricacy and complexity? Just thinkin . . .

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | August 1, 2008, 7:11 pm
  24. >Nathan said: I don’t see an absolute denial of absolutes so much as a suspicion of abstractions that claim by fiat to be the absolute. It’s basically the move that Aristotle makes in the beginning of his Politics over against Plato’s Republic.Very perceptive. In researching Burke for my undergrad thesis, his correspondance is filled with praise for Aristotle’s Politics. Burke is not a relativist, but doubts the capacity of human ideology to fully encompass and explain human nature. As Burke likes to say, “Art is man’s nature” not science. Thus providing institutions in society is not simple and and should not be solely ideological.

    Posted by Jared Nelson | August 1, 2008, 1:18 pm
  25. >No absolute valuation except that there should be no absolute valuation.In other words, the only absolute here is that there is no absolute. Isn’t that self-defeating?I don’t see an absolute denial of absolutes so much as a suspicion of abstractions that claim by fiat to be the absolute. It’s basically the move that Aristotle makes in the beginning of his Politics over against Plato’s Republic.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | August 1, 2008, 11:45 am
  26. >All this to say I have no idea what you are getting at by saying Burke is “making an absolute valuation for all peoples” when in fact he is saying that a people must look to their history and natural growth of their government for the correct structures of government for that particular people, and not making any absolute valuation beyond the need for prudence, prejudice, justice, balance and order.No absolute valuation except that there should be no absolute valuation. In other words, the only absolute here is that there is no absolute. Isn’t that self-defeating?

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | August 1, 2008, 7:55 am
  27. >To some degree, yes, he is saying there is not an absolute good form of gov’t. He defends “mixed monarchy” which is the British mixture of monarchy, noble rule in the house of Lords and common rule in the House of Commons, checks and balances and mixed government. But Burke did not think that was the only arrangement possible. Burke is writing against the French uprising that brought down their monarchy in favor of a single assembly government. Burke said he preferred the restoration of monarchy mixed with democratic rule in France as a good balance between each other.On whether there is an ideal form of government for all peoples I must say of course there is: monarchy…the Kingship of Christ. But as we do not have that, we must make due with attempts at justice which are not perfect. American Republicanism is good, but even that is a changing form of government. Frankly, I think it would be better if we repealed the 17th Amendment and no longer had direct election of Senators. This would allow a check on the American voter and majority opinion in government via the State Governments, but I digress.Our Government is the result of a tradition of Greek, Roman and British governmental tradition (bicameral government is a British tradition, representative government is a Roman and Greek tradition, etc.) and is NOT based on ideological abstraction first and foremost. I think Burke is right that if you try for the ideal form of government, uninformed by history we end up in disaster like how direct democracy leads to mob rule (I.e. the execution of the general that won Salamis) and monarchy is only as good as the current ruler (I.e. British and Roman history and the First and Second Book of Kings). All this to say I have no idea what you are getting at by saying Burke is “making an absolute valuation for all peoples” when in fact he is saying that a people must look to their history and natural growth of their government for the correct structures of government for that particular people, and not making any absolute valuation beyond the need for prudence, prejudice, justice, balance and order. An intricate working that simple, pure democracy is ill-equipped to deliver.

    Posted by Jared Nelson | August 1, 2008, 5:32 am
  28. >Let me rephrase something I wrote earlier:Burke seems to be making an absolute ethical valuation for all humanity based on something other than God’s revealed character, which, while it may include a measure of truth due to God’s common grace, is ultimately, I think, the essence of sin.

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | August 1, 2008, 3:46 am
  29. >I enjoyed reading your thoughts but don’t really know political theory/history well enough to comment substantively.At the risk of talking out of school, here’s a thought though. Burke writes:”The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity: and therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature, or to the quality of his affairs.”First, am I understanding Burke correctly? He seems to be saying that the intricacy of human nature leads to complex social institutions (e.g. gov’t) so that whatever might unify human nature and its social expression is superseded to the extent that we need not expect one form of gov’t to be better than another in a universal/absolute sense. If that is what he’s saying, I am skeptical for two reasons. First, I think there is ample evidence to suggest that what unifies humanity (i.e. a sense of morality, conscience, justice, etc.) may be sufficient to warrant belief in an ideal gov’t for all peoples. And second, Burke seems to be making an absolute ethical valuation for all humanity based on something other than God’s revealed character, which is, I think, the essence of sin.But again, I’m a non-initiate in these matters.

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | August 1, 2008, 2:49 am
  30. >As I’ve shared before, I really enjoyed his stuff on the sublime as well.I was going to share a Wookie quote instead, but just wasn’t feeling it so much.;-)

    Posted by GUNNY | August 1, 2008, 2:12 am
  31. >I have, however, located a Sony Reader-compatible version of the works of Burke, so who knows? Perhaps I’ll be reading some of that paleo stuff on the city bus some time soon.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | July 31, 2008, 8:26 pm
  32. >Just venting the classic tension between the paleo-cons and the neo-cons. I’m definitely a paleo-con…

    Posted by Jared Nelson | July 31, 2008, 2:11 pm
  33. >To confess a sin, I’ve not read much Burke at all, so I’m not really in a position to comment. I do know that some 20th century intellectuals whom I respect deeply in turn respect Burke, so I’m sure I’ll end up reading him, but I haven’t gotten around to that.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | July 31, 2008, 12:00 pm
  34. >Kinda thought someone would have called for my head with this post by now 🙂

    Posted by Jared Nelson | July 31, 2008, 3:44 am

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