The Pathos of Politics (36) Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke

If civil society be the offspring of convention, that convention must be its law. ~ Edmund Burke

Irish politician Edmund Burke (1729–1797) is generally considered the founder of modern conservatism, yet Burke expressed some liberal sentiments as well.

Burke was a prolific writer over the long course of a political career. The bulk of his writing was situational, not tracts of formulated political theory.

People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors. ~ Edmund Burke

A sentimental pragmatist who sometimes changed his mind, Burke had no coherent political philosophy, and had little knowledge about the history of philosophy. As is wont of conservatives, Burke revered tradition.

Always acting as if in the presence of canonized forefathers, the spirit of freedom, leading in itself to misrule and excess, is tempered with an awful gravity. ~ Edmund Burke

Burke’s statements often reflected an emotionality only tentatively tethered to rationality. This too is common with conservatives. Burke went as far as questioning whether a stable political structure could be established solely on the basis of reason. Burke thought that rationality had its limits in understanding society. He repeatedly stressed emotional needs – awe, superstition, ritual, and honor – to secure the loyalty and support of those on whom social stability depended.

Owing to the inconsistencies of human proclivities and the complexities of society, Burke dismissed the idea that a facile encapsulation of human nature or political philosophy was constructive. To Burke there were no simple answers, even as he clung to signpost sentiments.

Burke thought that the dignity of humans came through socialization. Obedience to society emanated not from self-benefit, or a promise, but because people saw themselves an integral part of it.

Unsurprisingly, Burke revived the idea of social contract, extending it into the metaphysical. Burke’s organic hypothesis was much different from Locke’s individualist conception.

Society is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties.

It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.

Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place.~ Edmund Burke

Burke drew no clear line between society and the state, which serves as the guardian of civil virtues, and as noted, facilitates trade. Burke conceptually conjoined society, state, and government. In making the state out as the bearer of civilizations’ values, Burk’s idealization became characteristic of English idealists and Hegel.

This is by contrast with Hume and other utilitarians. The word expedience was often on Burke’s lips, but it hardly took the meaning of utility.

Government is not made in virtue of natural rights. Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. ~ Edmund Burke

Like Locke, Burke considered all authority a public trust. Otherwise, Burke dismissed other Lockeian fundamentals, including the notion of natural law and innate rights of an individual as a “metaphysical abstraction” that failed to account for different societies. Like all philosophers, Burke was selective in the abstractions he curried with favor. Burke’s bedrock conservatism shined with his esteem of social order as a value unto itself.

Good order is the foundation of all things. To be enabled to acquire, the people, without being servile, must be tractable and obedient. They must respect that property of which they cannot partake. ~ Edmund Burke

To ensure social stability, Burke considered continuity crucial, albeit allowing for incremental political evolution. This reflected a moderate conservative’s true colors, as contrasted to “stand-pat” conservatives, who resist change.

A disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman. ~ Edmund Burke

Burke emphasized community, but denied any corresponding equal rights, either economically or politically. Burke accepted inequities as natural and unavoidable in any society.

Burke was not beyond idealization. He stressed the societal need for an elite which enjoyed a privileged position because of its supposed contribution to the common good.

We fear God; we look up with awe to kings; with affection to parliaments; with duty to magistrates; with reverence to priests; and with respect to nobility. It is natural to be so affected. ~ Edmund Burke

Despite, or perhaps because of, being from a lower social class, Burke venerated aristocracy. He never challenged the collective right of the aristocratic class to govern the British empire.

Burke did not deny human rights. Instead, he imagined what he thought was right and found himself contented with that.

Religion is the basis of civil society, and the source of all good and all comfort. ~ Edmund Burke

Burke scoffed at the separation of church and state. Ladling medieval Catholic dogma, Burke practically united politics with religion.

The consecration of the state by a state religious establishment is necessary. ~ Edmund Burke

In its aftermath, Burke opposed the French Revolution. He thought that the revolutionaries, by their “cant and gibberish of hypocrisy,” created an ideology of savagery for the French people. Burke dismissed the French revolutionaries as zealots who never considered the long-term effects of what they did. He was more shaken by what happened to Marie Antoinette than the oppression of the people prior to the Revolution. Thomas Paine’s famous reply to this was that Burke “pities the plumage but forgets the dying bird.”

In contrast to the French Revolution, beginning in 1774, Burke expressed his support in the British parliament for the grievances of the American colonies over taxation without representation. The character of Americans – “this fierce spirit of liberty” – impressed him.

The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations. ~ Edmund Burke

Burke was skeptical of democracy. While admitting that it may be desirable theoretically, he insisted that in the Britain of his day it would be not only inept, but oppressive.

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites. ~ Edmund Burke

Burke opposed democracy because he thought the common man lacked the intelligence and breadth of knowledge needed and could be easily aroused to dangerous passions by demagogues. Burke also feared the tyranny of majority rule.

In a democracy, the majority of the citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppressions upon the minority. ~ Edmund Burke

From 1796, Burke criticized the oppression, exploitation, and misrule of India by the East India Company. To Burke, India was an ancient civilization whose traditions and customs were to be respected.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. ~ Edmund Burke