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Reflections originally published: 1790
476 pages

Portable originally published: 1700s
573 pages

Chapter 36


Edmund Burke


Edited by Isaac Kramnick

[Note: These volumes are companions. Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke's reaction to the excesses of the French Revolution of 1789, expresses his view of the proper role of government and the people who rule. These observations still define the foundations of conservative theory. The Portable Edmund Burke, which includes most of his essays, tracks Burke's evolving philosophy from the time of the American War of Independence (1775-1783) through the remainder of his public career. These books are presented together to provide an overview of Burke and conservative philosophy as both developed.]

Reflections on the Revolution in France
Radical ideas were ubiquitous in 1790. Americans had completed their revolution and had already lived for a year under a new constitution. The French Revolution was ongoing, and there was confusion and


speculation among European intellectuals as to what sort of government would succeed the discredited monarchy. If a republican form of government (rather than a return to monarchy) was to be effected, Edmund Burke supported the American model. While most intellectuals deplored the waste caused by the French radicals, no one was sure what type of system would work or could work in France, given the disparity between the French and American circumstances and historical experiences.
     The French populace had spoken, but they had done so with many voices. The conflicts among means and ends and between the masses and the leadership that had seized control had to be dealt with. That anyone had to "deal with" the people at all, or their concerns, was itself a novel concept in France. Burke, a royalist, recommended Britain's enlightened monarchy as an example of what could work. However, since he also understood and defended individual rights, he felt ambivalent in the face of French extremism that moved toward wholesale egalitarianism.
     The principle, and radical, idea of the era was simple; i.e., that human beings are individuals endowed with natural rights. This view was in juxtaposition to Aristotle's largely accepted notion (up until the eighteenth century) that people are political animals meant to live in political society; for Aristotle, individuals were to act only in a manner that primarily benefited society. Any "rights" or individual opportunities that remained after society's needs were met could be exercised by the people themselves. As one can surmise, based on this less-than-easy relationship between individual and societal rights, there were many issues that needed resolution before social comity would ensue.
     Burke was skeptical of governmental power. In his writings he opines that government should act only when it must, never just because it can. He felt strongly that individuals should transfer rights to government reluctantly, and government should assume jurisdiction only when necessary; that is, when there was conflict between individuals. For Burke, civil society was an artificial institution entered into by individuals who contracted with each other to organize their respective lives as they interacted. Where such organization was not essential, Burke felt an individual's rights were inviolate.
     For Burke, the foundations of law are but two: equity and utility. Government must work; there is no utility in a perfectly designed government that exists in theory or in the abstract, but doesn't work


in the real world. Further, liberty must be limited (through laws) in order to be possessed, since unbridled liberty is simply anarchy. For Burke, ordered liberty results in the greatest (but certainly not perfect) equality and opportunity. The degree of restraint to be imposed, by agreement of the governed, is impossible to settle precisely. For this reason, courts were necessary after legislative decrees were implemented. The circumstances of the time and place, and of the temperament of the people, must be a consideration in the process of governance. As well, Burke assumes that every man acts from motives relative to his own interests and not because of metaphysical considerations having primarily his fellow man's interests at heart. Thus there would be a need for malleable, but not definitive, societal controls.
     Burke writes Reflections in reaction to the extremes of the French Revolution. He draws the conclusions observed above from what he saw and what he knew. These inferences, once stated, caused him to break with his own political party, the Whigs, and to develop a philosophical view of both man's nature and our obligations to one another that were different from what had been thought up to that point. Because he writes at the very time of the revolution his commentary includes not only a probing investigation into the meaning of various events, but also a necessary abhorrence of some of their effects.
     Burke simultaneously developed into a monarchist and democrat; he believed in the historical good of a hereditary king, but he likewise cherished the equally inherited right of a legislature or parliament to exist because of past sacrifices made by the people to obtain such instruments of government. Burke portrays parliament as the antidote to the excesses and egoism of monarchy. He also holds that neither the king nor parliament could abdicate their respective powers in the face of the other-that the balance created between the two branches was essential, if ever difficult to attain, to protect not just the people, but the system itself.

               To make a government requires no great prudence. Settle the seat of
               power; teach obedience; and the work is done. To give freedom is still
               more easy. It is not necessary to guide; it only requires to let go the rein.
               But to form a free government; that is, to temper together these opposite
               elements of liberty and restraint in one consistent work, requires much
               thought; deep reflection; a sagacious, powerful and combining mind.


     In opposition to Burke's dual concerns about the unwarranted mayhem of the French Revolution and the value of monarchical leadership combined with parliamentary restraint, Thomas Paine put forth The Rights of Man (Chapter 2). This effort was in support of the French Revolution, and exposes the bankruptcy of hereditary monarchy itself and France's in particular. As Paine analyzes (and Edmund Burke tries to defend the practice of) hereditary government, Paine wins the argument
because he puts forth the conclusive consideration; i.e., the sacrosanct right of the governed to choose their own form of government in each succeeding generation or era.
     Government is simply a necessary evil, useful, if not mandatory, to control ourselves when we fail one another. How we effect that control (and what additional restraints need to be governmentally supported) is for each age to decide. The important consequence for Paine was that no matter how much reverence Burke adduces to support the undeniably important wisdom of the ages, Paine asserts that those living now should not have to forfeit their right to pass judgment on choices made by those no longer alive. Both Paine and Burke decried the extremes of the French Revolution, and both were disillusioned by man's inhumanity to man, but both saw opportunity for needed change in the events unfolding in Paris. Paine's support of the revolution was founded in the insanity of the French monarchy. Burke's denunciation of the revolution was rooted in the insanity of the republic. Both were right.
     Watching these two authors dissect what was good and bad with respect to the events of their day still teaches valuable lessons. The matters with which they were wrestling were novel and grew in opposition to a thousand years of history. The fact that neither man was wholly right in either his assessment or his prescriptions reflects not so much their inadequacy, but the difficulties of "squaring the circle;" that is, solving all the conundrums of governance in one scoop-it cannot be done. We still battle over the issues that first arose in their era, and it is more than useful to understand our difficulties by viewing theirs as representative government evolved during the eighteenth century.

The Portable Edmund Burke
The times in which Edmund Burke lived were unsettled. The role of government in people's lives was rapidly evolving into something quite different from what it had been only two or three generations before.


Burke had an incisive intellect and a historian's eye for the big picture; using these talents he became a prolific essayist, commenting on many of the topics that were so much on people's minds. As we travel Burke's path we see not so much political dogma as everyday practicality. As was noted in the introduction to First Principles, conservatism is not an ideology; it is a movement, and it is also a way of thinking. Burke's manner of thinking is the genesis of conservative practice.
The difference between forming an ideology and simply letting practical politics define self-governance is an important distinction to keep in mind; as one compares Burke with his contemporaries in America and those who followed him subsequent to the French Revolution, one can see practical governance develop and utopian design falter. A brief overview of some of the subjects he analyzed follows. This abbreviated slate is but a taste of his lifelong comprehensive investigation of man in relation to his government. All of these, and many more, are covered in depth in The Portable Edmund Burke.

Individual Rights
Burke was a historian first, and history was his guide. He felt that people's rights, insofar as they had developed in his era, needed a precise definition for the protection of both the ruled and the rulers. Although he recognizes natural rights, he deals more with historic rights because natural rights, which he calls "original" rights, were a subject for speculation rather than experience, and such speculation could give rise to conflicting claims of inviolability. In Burke's understanding, natural rights, abstract and often ephemeral, relate to one's essence as an individual; social rights, on the
other hand, relate to one's opportunities and responsibilities-while maintaining one's individuality-to those around us, and they to us. Although natural and social rights were complementary, they did not offer reciprocal justifications of their validity. They merely worked together, but each for its own reasons; they were not a whole except by necessity, not by design.
     Most importantly and logically for Burke, natural rights could not extend beyond the state of nature; once the distant ancestors of the present generation developed civilization, natural rights gave way to social obligations and privileges. Burke felt that recorded rights-fought for and instituted by the direct action of the people, rights that had been defined and nuanced and that worked-were more defensible


against government than were natural rights. The latter might reflect conflicting absolute claims, with the potential to cause social unrest as partisans asserted them.
     From Burke's viewpoint there was practicality in the observation that if humans didn't develop or evolve beliefs over time and out of experience, they would have to make decisions as events unfolded-idiosyncratically, and most likely inconsistently, and thus with an invitation to anarchy as each day brought new, varied, and discrete circumstances. The prescriptions derived from experience worked to resolve these events, at least most of the time. These remedies ultimately became entrenched reactions to repeated situations; they achieved the status of prescriptive rights; that is, they helped prescribe how we might reasonably act today. Thus Burke defends historic rights not so much as an ultimate standard simply because they had evolved in the past, but as a reflection of solutions that had worked. Although they can always be questioned and compared-in order to allow for further development-they do not have to be discarded simply because they are old. A failure to comprehend the lessons of history simply makes current life more difficult.
     Modern conservatives, as is their wont, refer to both history and reason as they wend their way through the myriad decisions we must make in everyday life. "If something is done a number of times it seems to be the result of a deliberate rational decision," wrote Saint Thomas Aquinas. To ignore that rationality is itself irrational.
     Nowadays, the argument between those who believe in natural rights and those who argue that rights are the result of a social compact seems archaic some of the time (until political goals enter the equation), but in Burke's era such discussions were at the core of political discourse. In order to understand what has evolved to become the nucleus of today's governing standards, it is advantageous to comprehend the course of the political theology that matured as eighteenth-century philosophers considered governing options in the face of human needs and desires.
     Human activities give rise to all sorts of complicated relationships, goals, and methods of dealing with one another. Burke's writing holds that it was not possible to define how we should interact before events unfolded. Accordingly, he doubts whether abstract principles of governance could be used very often to solve real problems. How we live together must flow from social experience and the gradual development


of custom and law. Once established, such custom and law must be adhered to with fidelity, and changed only upon great cause:

               [The] choice [of government is] not of one day or one set of people, not a
               tumultuary and giddy choice; it is a deliberate election of ages and of
               generations; it is a constitution made by what is ten thousand times better
               than choice; it is made by the peculiar circumstances, occasions, tempers,
               disposition, and moral, civil and social habitudes of the people, which
               disclose themselves only in a long space of time.

     Burke was a practical man who felt that the world works the way it does simply because it works. The question unresolved in Burke's time, as much as it is unresolved today, was how to prevent injustice while preserving individual rights. The limiting factor in achieving pure justice and inviolate human rights is, of course, the essence of our being-the human condition. Burke's recognition of this restricting element forced his solutions to always be practical.

Burke was the first to articulate a government design based upon a comparative study of two modern styles of democratic rule-the American and French models. In France, the rights of the individual were stripped of meaning and the mob prevailed-by means of the guillotine; in America, individual rights were exalted on paper but in such a manner that in practice (at least in 1790) no one knew how comprehensively individuals could actually be free. The harm to the populace, meted out because of overindulgence in individual rights, or, conversely, the restriction of one's own liberty in deference to others, represented both extremes. A balance needed to be continually struck; but agreement on the middle ground was not easy. Human nature, which is intricate and full of subtlety, and the complexities of social interaction demanded a thoughtful and malleable government. Good political leadership was an art admittedly founded on principle, but aware of circumstances as well. Burke ultimately decries the French Revolution as it occurred, but not most of its practical intentions. He was cautionary, not reactionary. Today we still see the effects of the conundrums that he faced.


     Reading Burke in the twenty-first century, in light of the historical American experience-which is instructive by virtue of our piecemeal, gradual promotion of individual and social rights through democratic processes-is more than useful in gaining perspective. And perspective is the most valuable tool in understanding history and effecting government. If Burke were alive today, he would probably approve of our concepts and methods of governance as they developed. How he would look at our results is less certain, for twenty-first-century governmental power has exceeded its stated (Constitutional) bounds in many instances. We have often lost sight of individual rights in favor of massed rights embodied in the mob, contrived rights that serve no social need except the spurious one of rectifying the alleged victimization of parts of society. These mostly fictitious "rights" create further aberrations that seem to demand even more adjustments, resulting in additional anomalies, ad nauseum. Because of this, both society and government have become so distorted that picking a place for rational retrenchment becomes almost impossible. (Along this line of thought, it is valuable to read the latter portion of Richard Pipes's Property and Freedom [Chapter 11] to grasp the full import of the differences between individual rights and mob demands, and how we legislate in each circumstance.)
     Today we talk of rights incessantly, and of responsibilities infrequently. Burke would not have approved of that. Since we do not live in some chaotic, pre-historic state of nature, Burke would argue our democratic manner of governance should reflect the duties we must individually perform to foster our collective goals. Therein lay the key to ordered liberty and good government.
     The immorality and corruption of many politicians in Burke's day had left the people distrustful of government and anxious to have their say. (Sound familiar?) Burke's recognition of this condition, inflamed by the rants of fourteen daily London newspapers (compared to our own forty versions of talk radio and fourteen thousand daily Internet blogs), led him to think much about what people can do for themselves. Largely as a consequence, Burke developed his characteristic philosophy of individualism tempered by the citizen's obligations to his neighbor. The creation of "public opinion" through the newspapers of Burke's day left the body politic with a taste for what it wanted, but endeavors to satisfy public wants brought on the dramatic political conflicts of the eighteenth century. The battle then, as now, was the tug between majority rule and inviolate individual rights. In America this


sometimes direct, sometimes subtle conflict was mostly resolved in the Constitution and its first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights. The former protects the right, and evokes the practicality, of majority rule, while the latter envelopes the individual in a cocoon of natural and prescriptive (earned over time) protections that no majority, certainly no tyrannical majority, should be able to affect. These are the essential compromises that allow modern government to work. But they are compromises and thus not perfect or perfectly acceptable.
     Recognizing the reality of this evolution and its concessions, Burke holds that a state without a means to change itself is a state that will not survive. Burke's practicality is ever the essence of his lectures.

Consideration of who should vote, and thus choose the government, rendered Burke ambivalent. Since he did not have significant faith in ordinary people because of their lack of both experience and education, he did not advocate full democracy as a viable means of governing. But he was in favor of limited democracy, much as Thomas Jefferson was in the U.S. In expressing his lack of confidence in the ability of the general populace to choose a "proper" path by means of the electoral franchise, Burke observes:

               The people should not be suffered that their will, any more than that of kings,
               is the standard of right and wrong.

In other words, Burke feared the tyranny of the (ignorant) majority, as did all others who understood the downside of democratic possibilities. To allow the "educated" will to prevail he thought the best compromise. As the proportion of society that was sufficiently educated to properly employ the electoral franchise was small, in Burke's view, voting rights needed to be restricted.

On the subject of equality, of what it means and how to achieve it, Burke and many other classical liberal thinkers discerned a natural order in which discrimination had a role. Discrimination effects a prejudice, not in the negative sense of being against something, but in the positive sense of favoring those things that are good. Burke further


understood that there is scant equality in life, so little in fact, that to govern as if equality were an essential goal was doomed to failure. Burke was a realist committed to the principle of doing the best that was possible given real-world circumstances. He did not approve of sacrificing what was good, what worked most of the time, on the altar of perfection-the idea that if what was achieved wasn't perfect, it should be discarded.
     Burke's works remain instructive because of their advocacy of principled political action. Even so, contemporary readers may doubt whether he really believed everything that he averred, some of which, to the modern student, may appear to have been a too-hasty reaction to his revolutionary times and the conflict between the results of the American and French Revolutions. Regardless, watching Burke develop his views on equality is valuable in understanding the worth of our current systems, which are designed to confer at least equal opportunity, if not something slightly more-the loosing of imagination.

With respect to property, Burke, not unexpectedly, finds it to be the foundation of society. As had been obvious for centuries before Burke's era, without property rights and private property, anarchy prevails. Burke, who often takes a dim view of humankind, opines that it was not liberty and property that were so valuable, but "the lack of both that was so horrible." Burke considered the importance of property as he sought sense in the relation between the governors and the governed. He early rejected communism and collectivism (without so naming them) where property was held in common, as inconsistent with the natural rights of man and the natural congruities that allow a society to function. This view is perhaps the classic example of Burke's fealty to the limitations of the human condition (over fantastic notions of equalitarian social outcomes); equalitarianism appears exquisite in theory but works not at all on the ground. Thus private property-baneful, baleful, potentially divisive private property-for Burke, was not just the best solution, its existence was simply the only solution to the question of how to divide the spoils of society's success, and ensure there was an incentive to achieve ever more.


Public Morality
Burke writes that in order for people to govern themselves, they must relinquish their "selfish will." He maintains this can only be done through fundamental adherence to religion; religiosity thus became basic to Burke's view of mankind's ability to govern itself. Today, when we separate church from state so dramatically and in such minute detail, as we emphasize we are a nation of laws, we must accomplish purging ourselves of selfishness in a more secular atmosphere. Our sometimes-intrusive civil laws, combined with our hubristic determination to watch over our neighbors, leads to confusion and sometimes contention in matters of morality. Since our species is adept at ignoring both religious injunction and secular laws, we must commit ourselves to acting realistically-meaning acting ethically, irrespective of the sources from which we gain our fundamental beliefs-in order for society to function. In America, we have found that we can adhere to religious or moral principle without being required to adhere to a state religion or any particular theology. This is a significant difference between Americans and much of the English populace of Burke's experience. Americans quite generally accept the adage that "we cannot have a just society if we are not a moral society." An American secular morality has become not a substitute for religion, but a complement to it in the public domain, where state and religion are required to be separate, yet occupy the same space. We are still a fundamentally religious people, and that, more than any other factor, certainly more than any secular factor, is what has made America what it is.

In all of Burke's work we can see a striving to meld political necessity with human reality. His solutions are not always perfect, but they are far more rational than those of the despots and demagogues with whom he contended. Reading Burke and watching his own evolution gives one an understanding of how difficult the path was that brought us to our nuanced and sometimes-contentious model of democratic governance. Understanding Edmund Burke is a first step toward first principles.


About the Author
Edmund Burke was born in 1729 in Ireland, the son of an attorney. In 1750, at the age of 21 he immigrated to London to attend school and remained there for most of the rest of his life. He began his career as an essayist, which led to his interest in things political, and was elected to the British House of Commons in 1765. Burke was a classical liberal in his political views and a supporter of four revolutions: the English, American, Indian, and Irish. But he recognized before anyone else the destructive power of the French Revolution, which was founded on the mutually exclusive doctrines of theoretically unlimited rights of the individual at one end, and the role of the centralized state as the sole legitimate protector of those rights at the other.
     Burke spent much of the middle of his political life dealing with the revolution in America. He endeavored, mostly unsuccessfully, to ameliorate the effects of taxation imposed by Britain, which demonstrated British proprietary inclinations toward its colonies. In his later years, he fought the abuses of the executives of the East India Company, which had become a corrupt fiefdom of the British aristocracy. He spent most of his intellectual career writing about the theory of government and about the relationship between human nature and human action. Based on his investigations, Burke crafted a literary corpus that remains unrivaled in its exposition of the fundamentals of the individual's relationship to his society and his government. Burke left parliament in 1794 and died in 1797.

Reflections on the Revolution in France
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The Portable Edmund Burke
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